To suggest that Anomalisa is Charlie Kaufman’s most conventional film yet speaks less of how approachable this movie is (not very), and more of how consistently surprising his filmography thus far has been. The writer (and occasional director) of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York has rarely hewed too closely to cinematic norms, and his latest film is – for the most part – no exception.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is the frustrated author of a customer service productivity book, visiting Cincinnati for a conference at which he will speak. Though married with a child, he uses the trip as an excuse to re-visit an old flame. That meeting fizzles out, but Michael fulfills his urge for connection by spending the night with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a convention attendee staying in his hotel who is perhaps improbably excited to meet the keynote speaker.
So far, so normal. Of course, this being a Kaufman film, there’s a twist: Michael and Lisa are the only two individuals in a world made up entirely of identikit people, men and women alike sharing a common face and eerily calm voice (courtesy of Tom Noonan). It’s a trick made possible in part by the film’s use of stop motion animation, which sees Michael and Lisa rendered in uncanny valley detail while surrounded by a sea of blank-faced simulacrums.
Kaufman is here joined by co-director Duke Johnson, whose animation experience comes into the fore, not least in a few bravura perspective-bending shots. They bring startlingly naturalistic movement to the array of puppets, while details like the splash of a drink or the curl of cigarette smoke banish all thoughts of animated manipulation. When Michael and Lisa are alone on screen, it’s easy to forget Anomalisa is animated at all, to get lost in these all-too-human characters. When the pair eventually make it into Michael’s hotel room, the film delivers one of the most authentic, touching sex scenes in recent memory – puppets be damned.
Kaufman’s clone army serves to highlight Michael’s fragile mental state and isolation from the rest of humanity, though the film is careful to reveal little, toying with the audience’s understanding of the world. Linguistic tics and phrases echoed between seemingly disparate characters highlight the memetic design of the world, adding to the sense that all is not as it seems – a Kaufman speciality.
That attention to language runs throughout the rest of the film, in which misunderstandings are rife, from a cabbie who can’t understand Michael’s English accent through to a hopeless hotel bellboy confused by his every sentence. Michael is out of step with this world, unable to make himself understood, unable to understand those around him, everything and everyone else reduced to a faceless, impenetrable mass.
Michael’s plight will be a familiar one to many, a common enough crisis writ large and made novel in so doing. There are coy hints that all of this has happened before, that Michael looks to others for the solution to his own problems, caught up in lust and fascination until the lustre fades.
In Anomalisa, Kaufman has captured depression’s impact on your every perception, fusing his own tendency for world-bending stories with the very real capacity of mental illness to do exactly the same. Underneath all that, though, is a simple story of love – or at least something like it. Two isolated people clinging to each other in the dark, each hoping the other will help them find the light, each shying away from their real problems. This is haunting, mesmeric work, overflowing with ideas and with heart.
Words by Dominic Preston